Early Years

“You’re not an accountant – you’re a marketer,” - Sibusiso Radebe

Ikalafeng spent all his school years in one school precinct at St. Boniface starting at kindergarten at age 4 through to matriculation as head boy in 1985 when the entire school year was terminated within the first quarter as a result of the important and consequential nation-wide schools boycotts that redefined the battle against the apartheid government. St. Boniface is a Christian Brothers College school located between a then apartheid era white suburb, a black township, Galeshewe and an Indian business center. Throughout all his school years, he was first in class for all but his first couple of years in primary school. It was a standout period during which he played violin, piano, football, tennis, chess and athletics, led tenor in the school choir, a lead actor in school plays, and served mass as an altar boy a Lady of Fatima Church. It was a defining childhood that never limited his talents or attempts at anything – an experience he believed developed his ability and confidence to keep busy doing a lot of things. Independent from an early age, he didn’t need to as he was well provided for by his grandparents who raised him and his mother was worked through the ranks in nursing from training in Port Elizabeth through to matron in Bloemfontein.

Regardless, on weekends and school holidays he found jobs working in then white people’s gardens and later in retail first in the electronics division of Klein Brothers in Kimberley and later at Skipper Bar in Bloemfontein. With the money first he bought and resold fruit and snoek and later a camera to take pictures. Confident he would be accepted, he applied only to once university, Wits, then the #1 university in South Africa, to study B.Com (Accounting) degree. But because of the nation-wide boycotts of 1985 his goal would be delayed one year after writing his exams independently when the boycotts were halted. Ikalafeng used the gap year to study fashion design at Gemini Design School in Orlando, Soweto – but dropped out mid-year when he received his matric results to pursue his primary goal of university. He was awarded an Eskom scholarship to study accounting at Wits for the 1987 academic year. He moved into the new Barnato Hall, then the first co-ed and mixed race residence at Wits University.

To become financially independent, during his time at Wits, he spent his free time doing several Print and TV commercials.

Despondent at having being failed with an intriguing 47% mark for three subjects and being told by the law professor that “all you black students always complain when you fail” when he challenged the results because it was inconceivable to have failed when his mid-term mark that counted towards 50% of the year-end mark was 72%. It was not unusual during apartheid era times to have pass quotas to limit the number of black learners progressing especially in the science and maths programmes. Undeterred, he re-set his mind to repeat the courses and plan his exit to study overseas. He eventually left Wits to go pursue his studies at Marquette University, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States on an Educational Opportunities Council (EOC) scholarship – as one of 80 out of over 2,000 successful applicants.

During a night out in Columbus, Ohio, where the new arrivals spent three weeks orientation, he met an old acquaintance from Wits, the late Sibusiso Radebe, who asked him what he was going to study at Marquette. “I’m here to finish my accounting degree and return to practice as a chartered accountant (CA),” he said. Radebe jokingly responded, “get real, you’re not an accountant – you’re more like a marketer.” The comment stuck in his sub-consciousness – and ultimately, after starting out with a goal of pursuing accounting, Ikalafeng excelled in marketing and earned an American Marketing Association Marquette University award for marketing excellence – and proceeded to start his career at Colgate Palmolive HQ in New York in an engagement championed by a mentor and later friend, Philip Berry, then the highest ranking African American executive in senior leadership at Colgate Palmolive, who wanted to position Ikalafeng for eventual leadership at Colgate Palmolive in post-apartheid South Africa.

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